…if, you know, you’re fond of Siberia and don’t value your life
When you prank the guy who rules one-sixth of the earth’s surface, you either have balls of steel or you’re clinically insane.
Tsar Nicholas I of Russia is generally known as a hard-ass. Mention his reign to an academic, and they’ll tell you about censorship, repression, authoritarianism, and the slow but inexorable march to revolution that began with Nicholas’s suppression of the Decembrist revolt in 1825.
Nicholas was a fearsome figure to ordinary Russians…unless your name was Trubetskoy. This is the man who dared to pull not one but two epic pranks on the most powerful man in the world.
In today’s world, this is the equivalent of putting a whoopee cushion on Putin’s presidential chair…during a live press conference.
Proceed with caution.
Nicholas wasn’t afraid of the Ottoman Empire or the Prussians, but he was deathly afraid of one tiny creature — a black beetle. One day, as he got into his carriage to leave the palace, he looked down and realized it was covered with crawling black beetles. Not one, not a dozen, but hundreds of them, squirming their way all over him.
Understandably, Nicholas freaked out. He shouted for help and banged on the walls of the carriage. This freaked the hell out of his coachman, who thought the tsar was being murdered inside.
When they stopped the coach, everyone realized what had happened: Nicholas had been pranked.
The prankster? Prince Trubetskoy, “the mad Prince.” Nicholas scolded him, but ultimately pardoned him.
What a Drag
You’d think Trubetskoy would have rested on his laurels as the gold-medal-winning ballsiest prankster of St. Petersburg.
Nope. He went for the platinum medal.
At the tsar’s court in St. Petersburg, there was an annual public masquerade ball, where all appropriately dressed people were admitted. You didn’t have to be royal, and you didn’t have to be a prince — you just had to have a good costume and a mask.
Trubetskoy had a good costume, all right.
He’d stolen a dress from one of the tsar’s favorites, a “Madame de G.” Apparently, he was a small man able to pass as a woman. With just a mask and a disguised voice, he walked right up to Nicholas, fooled him, and extended his hand.
Nicholas kissed it.
But, perhaps carried away by his success, Trubetskoy slipped out of character…and Nicholas immediately suspected what was up. He ordered General Benckendorff to tail the erstwhile woman.
When she stepped outside for some air, Benckendorff ordered Nicholas’s grenadiers to bar her path. Benckendorff unmasked him, confirming the tsar’s suspicions.
Once more, Trubetskoy was pardoned.
Be Careful What You Wish For
This anecdote is less of a prank than a WTF moment. But since it threw Nicholas for a loop, I’m including it for your amusement.
Nicholas liked to walk alone through the streets of his capital city. To keep him from being mobbed by people asking for help or favors, a general order was issued — anyone who talked to him without permission would be arrested, no questions asked.
One day, Nicholas passed an actor he’d seen live on stage, a French comedic actor. He waved and smiled. The actor, naturally, walked over to say hello. But the policeman walking behind Nicholas must have missed the tsar’s overture. He followed the actor and arrested him as soon as Nicholas was out of sight.
That night, Nicholas went to the French theater to see his acquaintance in action. But the troupe couldn’t stage a damn thing because the star of the show had been arrested.
Nicholas realized what must have happened, and ordered the actor’s immediate release. The actor hurried to the theater, because the show must go on…especially when the tsar is in the audience.
After the show, Nicholas pulled the actor aside and apologized for what had happened. “I owe you one,” Nicholas said. “Tell me what you want, and it’s yours.”
“The only thing I want,” the actor replied, “is for your Imperial Majesty to never speak to me in the street again.”
Nicholas cracked up. “Well played, sir,” he said. “Well played.” And he handed over a “magnificent present” to smooth things over.
You Can’t Handle the Truth
So are these stories true?
Maybe — I found them in the British Newspaper Archive, while looking for information about Nicholas I’s daughters.
These anecdotes were printed as an extract from a private letter in several British newspapers from June through August of 1843. We don’t know who wrote the letter, and we don’t know how much of that letter’s contents are true.
But that’s why I love reading old newspapers.
You get glimpses of personality you just can’t get from a standard history book. Maybe Nicholas I really was terrified of black beetles. Or just bugs in general. Or maybe the letter writer wanted to cast Europe’s most well-known tyrant in a humorous light. That reveals something either way.
Plus, how can you resist a story that turns the tsar of Russia into a contestant on his very own version of Fear Factor?
Unsigned article from Morning Post, Monday 10 July 1843. Via the British Newspaper Archive.
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